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Yoga in Cuba: Trojan horse or subtle trick?


By one of our former MA-students


Post 1959, Cuban people have been muted about the harshness of their daily life conditions and incited to praise the revolution achievements of Fidel Castro’s regime. In anthropological terms, we would say that their agency was constrained: freedom of thought, of speech and association were restricted to the extent that people traded their own critical sense and capacity for revolt for a collective revolutionary mentality that was aimed at providing them with a better future.
Nevertheless, in the face of the 1990 economic crisis, the Cuban people’s awareness has begun to crack: as a way to compensate for the new state inefficiency, an increasing number of people have started to rely on themselves rather than on the state structure. It is in this context of agency versus structure that my research about the Cuban version of Iyengar yoga took place.

Yoga practice was first implemented as a means to alleviate the anger and despair among the population in the aftermath of the economic crisis. However, right after the peak of the crisis the state backed down and stopped financially supporting or promoting the practice. Surprisingly, Iyengar continues to be practiced even without state support and has even become one of the first independent associations allowed in Cuba.

Such a situation is food for thought…While to the yoga neophyte the paradox might not appear at first, it is crystal clear to experienced practitioners : according to the Hindu tradition yoga’s main goal is freedom. Why then did the power-oriented Cuban regime implement and subsequently allowed to operate independently a practice that by its very nature jeopardizes the hegemony of the state? In an attempt to unravel this puzzle I looked into the role of yoga within the current Cuban society and the ways that it impacts on individual, collective and political agency.

To my understanding, yoga plays a role at several levels. I suggest that both the Cuban state and the ACY – Cuban Association of Yoga – use the practice for politically motivated reasons and to compensate for the failure of the revolution regime. By so doing, the yoga practice is turned into a coping mechanism; it grants the Cubans a ‘breathing space’ where they can detach from daily issues. Allowing the practice but not promoting it means restricting the size of the movement in order to avoid a significant national impact: yoga is cut from the means to challenge the regime.

Nevertheless, yoga remains a challenge for the Cuban regime; it helps develop several abilities that nurture the newly discovered sense of agency fuelled by the disillusion at the grass-root level. It empowers at once the individual and collective that the Cuban regime attempts to control. Therefore, I concluded that yoga can also be seen as an ‘opposition mechanism’ against the regime.

Although the impact at the grass-root level is currently limited, yoga has the potential for making the civil society evolve; it balances for the weaknesses of the daily civil structure. I would suggest that yoga might hold a potential for political purposes; it compensates for the weaknesses in terms of political abilities. Such a suggestion requires, nevertheless, further investigation.

Only time will tell whether yoga is a Trojan horse or a subtle political trick. For the time being it seems that it is both!

This blog was written by a student who finished the Master’s programme in Social and Cultural Anthropology. The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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